The biggest bang for the buck: Cost‐effective vegetation treatment outcomes across drylands of the western United States

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Restoration and rehabilitation are globally implemented to improve ecosystem condition but often without tracking treatment expenditures relative to ecological outcomes. We evaluated the cost‐effectiveness of widely conducted woody plant and herbaceous invasive plant removals and seeding treatments in drylands of the western United States from 2004 to 2018 to determine how land managers can optimize efforts. Woody plant cover decreased at a similar rate per dollar spent regardless of vegetation removal type, and the dominant invasive species was reduced by herbicide application. Relatively inexpensive herbicide application also had a large positive effect on seeded perennial grass cover that was enhanced by additional cost; while expensive woody mastication treatments had little effect regardless of additional cost. High seed cost was driven by including a large proportion of native species in seed mixes, and combined with high seeding cost, promoted a short‐term (2–3 yr) gain in perennial forb cover and species richness. In contrast, seeding and seed mix cost had no bearing on seeded perennial grass cover, in part, because relatively cheap nonnative seeded species rapidly increased in cover. Our results suggest the differential benefits of commonly implemented treatments aimed at reducing wildfire risk, improving wildlife habitat and forage, and reducing erosion. Given the growing need and cost of restoration and rehabilitation, we raise the importance of specifying treatment budgets and objectives, coupled with effectiveness monitoring, to improve future outcomes.

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